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How to say "no"

There is nothing like the cringe-y, guilt-driven feeling that follows when you've said "no" to a request. Whether it's helping get a job done at work or to spending Christmas day with your family, we find saying "no" to requests a challenge, but doing so is necessary to protect your energy and make sure your time is filled with the most valuable things to you.

You need to say "no" to protect your time and energy

Saying "no" part of the process of setting healthy boundaries. It is an important part of developing your own sense of self and from Positive Psychology's article on healthy boundaries, it leads to good mental and emotional health, the avoidance of burnout, a sense of developed autonomy and identity, and it influences other's behaviour. Being able to say "no" to your friends, families and colleagues is part of your right to living life the way you want to, and ensuring that your time and energy goes on the things that matter to you most. You may have noticed that as you get older, the faster time seems to be fly by, and keeping focussed on your top priorities and saying "no" to other activities is needed to get all the things done that you want to do.

On top of this, there is always the memory of the event you said "yes" to going to, when in actual fact you really wanted to say "no" to. Maybe you didn't feel that present at that event, didn't enjoy it as much as you wanted, and wished you were elsewhere the whole time. You might even have been in a bad mood for the time and not interacted with people that positively. There is a consequence of not saying "no" when we wanted to and often, it only ends up leaving us conflicted and in a bad mood.

Saying "no" makes us feel guilt

Saying "no" to a request, suggestion or invite is AWKWARD af. If we say "no" to someone, especially in person, it feels awful to do. Not to mention this feels doubly awkward if you are a"yes" person that's used to taking on more work, going to every social or always helping out where you can. There's the icky feeling alongside your heart beating a little bit faster because you know you don't want to, or don't have the time to, but you feel you should. And this is why we find it so hard to say "no".

Expectations play out in our lives all the time. We feel like we should help out, that we should go to celebratory drinks of a colleague, that we should spend Christmas with our family. These are all scenarios written by society and they don't have to be true. The problem we face is that we want to be part of the group, we want to be liked, which is particularly so for women and the pressures around being liked, and saying "no" feels like it runs the risk of that.

The sense of guilt holds us back when instead, we need to focus on the realities of our schedule, our time and our energy. Sometimes we wonder if we're being selfish. But we have to look at it from a different perspective, one that looks at the benefit for ourselves than from the perspective of others all the time.

You don't have to be blunt when you say "no".

There is an art to saying "no". Saying "no" in such an abrupt, short form could cause some offence and would actually lead to people being less fond of you. But it isn't the "no" itself that causes that dislike but the way it was said. Explaining why, at least to some degree, gives the person an explanation to a no. An "I'm afraid I can't, I really need to get the house sorted this weekend" tells another person what your priority is. They may not agree with that priority. That the house move they've asked you to help with is more important, and of course it is to them, but your weekend is as important to you as well.

Still there are tougher scenarios. With Christmas on the horizon and plans for what to do and where coming up, the awkward-ness can pile on. But if you're really going out there for saying "no" to spending Christmas with family members, going with a polite but explanatory response could be "Thank you for the invite, but I'm looking to do Christmas a bit differently this year". This could follow up with plans for travelling, house sitting, spending it on your own, or with friends instead, or you can leave it open if you don't yet know. We often worry about offending someone or letting them down by saying "no", but you have the right to exercise doing it, yet you can be sensitive to the disappointment they may experience by delivering it in a respectful way.

Importantly, the focus should come back to you and what you want to do, avoiding the reasons for not attending which might be more personally related to people involved.

Be prepared for the person receiving the "no" to be unprepared for your answer

"Every action has an equal opposite reaction". Referring back to Newton's Third Law, as mentioned in the hit-musical Hamilton, for every force that pushes one way, there is an equal opposite force acting in the reverse. For Hamilton, he was fighting for freedom in America but was met with resistance from the opposing parties who were set in their ways. And you too are fighting for your freedom of choice and autonomy in saying "no", so it's worth expecting an equal, opposite reaction from one or more people to your choice - though that doesn't make it the wrong choice.

Our friends and family have known us a long time, and this change in your approach means they have to change and adapt too, which they might not want to do, nor be ready for! Just like you need to practice how to say "no", the people you're saying "no" to will need to practice accepting the answer of "no". For all the times you've never said "no" before, they may actually be a little shocked when you first say it and they may not have a moment to really consider you were going to deny their request, so bear that in mind if you get an instinctive response that's uncomfortable.

Remind yourself of the reason you said "no" and stick with it. Give as straight forward an explanation and maintain that if you are asked again or questioned "why not?"

There is no better time to start saying "no" than now.

Whilst examples and explanations can be useful to refer to, going out there and practicing saying "no" is key to learning how to say "no". As clinical psychologist, Patrick Sheehan explains, "Over time, you can learn that you will be ok and you will cope, even if it feels discomforting in the short term to say no." In fact,

We were brought up to please people and do well, but not always taught how best to say no when we don't really want to do something, sticking instead with a very typically British politeness to say "yes" regardless of our own feelings. As with many approaches to new behaviours, start by saying "no" to smaller request and with the people that you think will have the least amount of resistance to you saying no, to then build up to saying "no" to bigger requests, or those that might resist your answer of "no" more.

And a little top tip from me, every time you go to say "yes" to something ask yourself this:

If I'm saying "yes" to this, who and what am I saying "no" to?

You can explore "The Book of No: 365 Ways to Say It and Mean It" by Susan Newman PhD *for the updated edition and practical strategies for saying "no" across a variety of situations or consider a six or twelve week block of coaching sessions to help you focus on your goals and put the time and energy into the right place to get you there. Book a no-obligation discovery call to find out how we can work together!


* This is an affiliate link that I earn a small commission for, at no extra cost to you, if you choose to purchase through the link.

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